Column: Nonce upon a time


Commentary by Curtis Honeycutt

Have you ever heard or uttered a sentence and then thought, “I’ll bet no one’s ever said that before?” For instance, yesterday I was playing with my daughter, Maeve, who is 3 1/2. She has some stretchy, colorful toys called Monkey Noodles. Maeve has a vivid imagination, but I’ll spare the details of the game she invented only to say the game ended with me exclaiming, “We don’t put Monkey Noodles in our mouths after we bake them in our tummy ovens!” I doubt the same words had ever been put together in the same order in the same sentence before, and I doubt they’ll ever need to be uttered again.

I think about these kinds of sentences all the time. Do you know that there’s a version of this “once-in-a-lifetime” occasion for standalone words? They’re called “nonce” words, or “occasionalisms.” Nonce words are born when one word gets invented and subsequently utilized one time for one occurrence in one work of writing. These a la carte words are served up once and then they’re done forever.

The word “nonce” means “for the once,” or “for one purpose.” Yes, back in the day, regular people knew what “nonce” meant. James Murray, editor of the 1884 “New English Dictionary on Historical Principles” (which, in later editions, changed its title to the Oxford English Dictionary), coined the term “nonce-word.”

Lewis Carroll’s 1871 poem “Jabberwocky” includes several nonsensical words that — up until that point — hadn’t been invented, let alone used. The poem introduces us to one-time terms including “brillig,” “frabjous,” “frumious” and “manxome.” While I wasn’t there when Carroll penned this work, which would later be included in “Through the Looking-Glass,” I doubt he intended these nonce words to exist outside the universe of Alice’s Wonderland.

Irish author James Joyce came up with words constantly in his writing. In “Ulysses” alone, Joyce coined the words “mrkgnao,” “poppysmic,” “ringroundabout” and “yogibogeybox.” While this makes me want to start (and not finish) reading “Ulysses” again, I find it even more interesting that one of Joyce’s nonce words became a “real” word: quark.

As everyone already knows, quarks are subatomic particles that science people consider one of the building blocks for all matter. Physicist Murry Gell-Mann, who discovered quarks in the early 1960s, referred to these tiny particles as “quorks” until he came across the word “quark” in Joyce’s book “Finnegan’s Wake.” From then on, “quark” stuck.

So, a word to writers: Unless you’re ready for them to take on lives of their own, be careful not to throw nonce words around all zoozle-zazzle.